Apr/May 2015

IT is one of many options for innovative women who beat to their own drum.

It’s been talked about for years: Women are underrepresented in technology positions. Women make up 48% of the U.S. workforce, but hold only 26% of the IT (information technology) positions, according to the most recent census data. And perhaps there are some very sound reasons why. Ask around a room and folks will cite any number of reasons why men have more access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, training, and jobs. Engage both genders and you will likely spark an interesting discussion about what has led to the discrepancy.

Industry observers of both sexes insist today’s women are in a much better position to rise to leadership roles within corporate America than they were during any other time in history, even in the technology field. If more organizations are dedicating support to women and encouraging them to take on greater roles within the tech space, this then begs the question: Why do the numbers tell a different story?

Even though women comprise of almost half of the working population, they continue to be underrepresented in STEM occupations. Let’s look at the numbers. Dating as far back as the 1970s there has been uneven growth in women’s representation in STEM occupations. In 1970, women were 3% of engineers, 14% of life and physical scientists, 15% of mathematical and computer workers, and 17% of social scientists.  By 2011, women’s representation had prospered in all STEM occupations. However, despite the growth, women continue to remain significantly underrepresented in engineering and computer occupations, professions that comprise more than 80% of all STEM employment.

In fact, women’s representation in com­puter occupations has steadily dropped since the 1990s. This mirrors the dip in women’s share of bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded since the 1980s.  Women’s underrepresentation in STEM is a result of their significant underrepresentation in engineering and computer occupations, rather than math and science occupations, according to the Census report.

While women’s representation has continued to grow in math and sci­ence occupations since the 1970s, growth has tapered off in engineer­ing since 1990. In 2011, women were 13% of engineers, 27% of computer professionals, 41% of life and physical sci­entists, 47% of mathematical workers, and 61% of social scientists, the report says.

So what is holding women back? According to Pew Research, the problem may stem from women having to be “superwomen.” In other words, women often have to accomplish more than their male counterparts to prove they are capable for a position. This potentially suggests a glaring reality—society is holding women to a higher standard than their male colleagues. It seems as a society we still on some level assume that men are more capable of achieving certain tasks. This puts women in the position of having to go above and beyond the standards to which their male peers are held in order to demonstrate their competence in business and leadership.

In the United States, there are movements to expose young girls to STEM programs so they are better primed to choose careers in science and technology. As a result of these efforts, more young girls are being given access to mentors and training, as well as education about the career opportunities that are open to them. Many experts believe that as more women enter the field, it will create a sort of snowball effect, encouraging other women to follow suit. With more role models, it will become more evident to young girls and women what they—as scientists, technology professionals, engineers, or mathematicians—can offer the world.

Unfortunately, as of today, the numbers still paint a bleak picture. The percentage of women in STEM fields at the bachelor’s degree level peaked at 28% in 2002, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, before it began its decline. Now women are making up 25% of all such bachelor’s degree recipients. Female representation at the doctoral level has begun following suit. After reaching a peak of 28% in 2009, the percentage of female STEM doctorate recipients has held steady, but declined slightly, now making up 27% of that population. It is at the bachelor’s degree level where women have really slipped in their footing. During the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, the number of STEM-related bachelor’s degrees earned by women dropped in seven discipline areas, including engineering; computer science; Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; physical sciences; mathematics; biological and agricultural sciences; and social sciences and psychology. The biggest decrease was computer science. In 2004, women earned nearly a quarter (23%) of computer science bachelor’s degrees. In 2014, that percentage had decreased to just 18%.

The landscape looks slightly better at the master’s degree level, where the share of degrees earned by women increased in three areas (engineering, physical and biological sciences, and agricultural sciences), though it decreased in four other areas. But, as noted earlier, women have made gains at the doctoral level, where the share of degrees earned by women increased in five of seven discipline areas.

But for as much as we hype the STEM sector, many women have decided not to enter the technology sector.

Crème de la Crème
There is no question a fair number of women have been appointed to some impressive top jobs, including some past Women of M2M winners such as Meg Whitman, Sheryl Sandberg, Ginni Rometty, and Mary Barra, just to name a few. You can turn the pages of this magazine to see many more who have earned their stripes in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field.

Is there another generation rising to the top to join them in the corner office? Or will this require women to perform like a “superwoman” to break the glass ceiling and achieve that ever-elusive gender equality in the workplace?

Some say men have seen themselves as authorities since Eve gave Adam the bite of the apple at the dawn of civilization, or as some believe. Some experts on the topic suggest male leaders are compelled to be “experts” in their field, which can make others feel invisible. No one wants to feel part and parcel and, unfortunately, there are still many male executives who are dismissive to women’s ideas and contributions in the business world. This may be one reason women are deciding they can still have it all, but not in the corporate world; thus they are finding avenues to happiness elsewhere. Perhaps that elusive corner office just doesn’t sound as appealing as it once did.

Many women throughout our three years of surveys have revealed they still encounter a condescending tone from male peers when they encounter a technical problem, as if their inability to solve the problem on their own is linked in any way to their gender. This is unsettling considering these women feel that men of similar experience do not experience the same treatment. It’s this general inequality that has female students running, not walking for the door.

Couple all of the above these experiences and others and there has been a trickle down effect to the high-school level, not only impacting girls, but both genders. As a result, high-school students’ interest in STEM fields has shown some erosion. According to the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, STEM programs reached a low point in 2004, dropping nearly 19% from the base-year calculations. Interest levels had climbed steadily until 2009, at which point they started to decline. In spite of the intense drive to encourage students to study science, interest levels fell between 2009 and 2013 and are now just slightly below where they were in 2000.

As a society, we must try to correct the error of our ways and provide an atmosphere where students can advance equally. If we don’t, some very talented students will leave the tech world without ever really giving it a chance. If we do, we will see some pretty amazing things from students who are willing to collaborate on an equal plane and develop new innovative solutions.

Today, for instance, the inequality also extends to women in terms of pay for IT positions—women earn only 86 cents to a man’s dollar. Patricia Arquette’s gender-wage gap speech during the Oscars ignited fresh debate about the right to equal pay for women, which is even more acute in the tech industry.

The Women of M2M is a celebration of the ladies who are laser focused on changing the world in which they live. These women are not reading the headlines or listening to the gossip about any erosion in STEM-career interest and glass ceilings. They understand there are barriers and they may encounter male counterparts with antiquated ideas or big egos. These executives have a job to do and they do it. They are dedicated risk takers, movers, and shakers. They are highly respected businesspeople; they are 2015 Women of M2M. Please join us in congratulating them.

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View the 2015 Women of M2M winners here.

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